Coping with Student Misconduct

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(HOST) How far should schools go in policing student misconduct? Commentator Allen Gilbert notes that changes in state law have made this a difficult challenge for school officials.

(GILBERT) Many Vermont schools are struggling with what to do about bullying and harassment.

I was recently part of a discussion about bullying hosted by a statewide group. New bills on bullying have been introduced in the Legislature. The group wants to be on top of the issues.

One of the reasons that schools and others are struggling with bullying is that bullying is hard to define. It’s often confused with harassment, and also with hazing. Proper identification of the type of misconduct is important, though. The actions that schools must take depend on which type of misconduct they’re dealing with.

This identification of different kinds of student misconduct, and legal sanctions for the misconduct, are relatively recent. Prior to 2000, schools dealt with misconduct through locally adopted policies and discipline plans. That began to change when the Legislature outlawed hazing, in 2000. The state law was a response to incidents involving hockey players at the University of Vermont.

Hazing is a very specific form of misconduct. It’s defined as humiliating and demeaning acts forced on others to gain acceptance into a group, such as a sports team or fraternity.

Four years later, in 2004, the Legislature passed a law outlawing harassment. Harassment is also a specific form of misconduct. Harassment is intended to disparage someone based on their race, gender, religious belief, ethnic origin, or disability. It’s specific to these groups – which are called "protected classes."

At the same time that the Legislature considered the anti-harassment law, it also considered an anti-bullying law. There had been a tragic, high-profile bullying case earlier that year. But legislators studying the issue had difficulty defining exactly what bullying is. Hazing and harassment have hooks – hazing is misconduct based on acceptance into a group, harassment is misconduct based on protected classes. Bullying, though, is more general. It’s bad behavior meant to hurt any student in any way. That’s very broad.

In the end, the Legislature declined to outlaw bullying. Instead, it directed the state Department of Education to work with schools to incorporate anti-bullying protocols into school behavior plans.

What all this means is that bullying and harassment aren’t the same, even though they’re often combined in discussions of student misconduct.

My school wants to take a close look at our anti-bullying procedures, so I’ve been doing some reading on the subject. An eye-opening book for me was "Odd Girl Out," written by a young woman, Rachel Simmons. The book focuses on "girl-on-girl" bullying, which is subtle and, according to Simmons, widespread. While bullying among boys usually involves verbal insults or punches, bullying among girls involves what Simmons calls "alternative aggressions" – rolling of the eyes, rumors, and exclusion. These tactics are indirect, making them hard to identify. But they’re just as effective as more direct bullying tactics.

Regulating student misconduct is a challenge for schools. Laws can be confusing, and technology – especially cell phones and the internet — open new avenues of harm. How far schools should go, and can go, in policing interactions among students are tough questions.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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